Phrase of the day: anything but

I was flicking through the in-flight magazine on the plane home from Spain last Sunday evening and came across an article about Coco Chanel. Now, I’m certainly no expert on the life and times of the French fashion designer and businesswoman, and basically only knew what most of you probably do: she was French, she created some timeless designs that remain popular to this day, and that she launched a range of perfumes, including the iconic Chanel No. 5, one of the best-selling scents in the world. What I didn’t know – and what the article focused on – was the fact that her early years were anything but glamorous! She was born to an unmarried mother – a scandalous thing back in those days – in what was basically a hospital connected to a poorhouse – a place that provided food and somewhere to sleep for very poor people who couldn’t afford to feed themselves. Her father was a travelling salesman who moved from town to town selling clothes in markets, and her mother died when she was just 12. She was then sent to live in an orphanage – a place where children whose parents have died are looked after – and it was there that she learned how to sew (/səʊ/) and started making clothes. Of course, it may well have been the case that this tough start in life gave her the drive and determination to succeed.

Anyway, as well as teaching me a bit more about Coco Chanel, this article also got me thinking about the phrase anything but as I don’t think I’ve ever actually taught it before. It’s a phrase usually used to mark a contrast, to emphasise that a particular word really doesn’t describe a thing and that actually the opposite is true. A few examples from recent news stories may help to give you a better idea:

We’re now over a month into President Trump’s term, it is becoming increasingly clear that this administration will be anything but normal.

This winter has been anything but typical. In fact, it appears that Mother Nature forgot it altogether.

This recipe is conclusive proof – if it were needed – that broccoli is anything but boring.

In other words, there are lots of weird goings on in the White House, it was a very mild winter and, contrary to popular belief, broccoli is great!

One final way we also use anything but is in everyday conversation to refer back to an adjective that’s just been used, so for example:

Hey, good to see. It’s been ages. You’re looking very well.

> Yeah? I’m feeling anything but! (=I’m not feeling very well! In fact, I’m feeling pretty terrible at the moment)

And that’s all for today, I’m afraid. Anything but inspiring, I realise, but the best I could come up with.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Have you seen our summer school courses?

  • Do you ever flick through magazines? When?
  • What do you think gives successful people their drive and determination?
  • Can you think of anything in your country that you’d describe as anything but normal – or anything but boring?
  • Think of three ways to complete this sentence: Contrary to popular belief, people in my town / country . . .
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